Posted in match reports

View from the armchair: Ospreys 13 Sale Sharks 21

I’ve left a bit more time than usual before starting this review because I really, really don’t want it turning into a rant like last week’s. That it’s proving difficult not to, even though I should be reporting on a fabulous win tells you most of what you need to know.

I could just talk about the first twenty-five glorious minutes and then skip over the rest. And, had this been an anomaly, that’s exactly what I would have done. But it’s not, is it? It’s systemic. Get out of the blocks at speed, build up a lead, lose the initiative for a while, fail to get it back, panic…

We all know what happens next, so, sorry, but I can’t do it. I can’t pretend that the second fifty-five minutes were a blip and that they don’t represent a real problem within the team.

I still struggle to understand why this happens. Take Ben Curry; the ref is screaming “it’s a tackle, let go”. He said it two or three times. All Ben had to do was let go: it’s not rocket surgery. He’d have stayed on the field and maybe got a crucial turnover so that we go on to score the bonus point try. Instead, he’s kicking his heels on the sidelines as Ospreys mount more attacks and Sale give away more penalties in response.

So, why didn’t he let go? Did he not hear a man (with impeccable English, by the way) a few yards away from him? That’s not good enough – he’s a professional, he should be actively listening for the referee’s calls. Did he choose to ignore the ref? Please, let’s not go down that route…

Two more yellow cards, then, to add to the three yellows and two reds already picked up this season. Compound that with a penalty count of eleventy billion to bugger all and it’s clear that there is something fundamentally amiss. And I’m not going to apologise for bringing it up again, because until it’s addressed and fixed, we are not going to achieve our potential.

And it’s no good expecting it to get better with different personnel. George Ford isn’t suddenly going to stop the forwards from giving away stupid penalties. We need to figure out what is causing it. I suspect it’s something simple because most of the penalties given away (and the cards, come to that) are for silly offences. We don’t tend to be penalised for foul play particularly (at least, no more than any other team); it just seems to be an inability to stay this side of the line, rather than stepping over it. Or, rather, an inability to judge when to step over and when to hang back.

Maybe it’s down to that whole “losing the initiative” thing. Games ebb and flow, sometimes you’re on top, sometimes you’re defending for your life. I get the feeling that there comes a point where they start to panic a bit about regaining control and that’s when the errors creep in. That’s just a feeling: I could be wrong but, if it is the case, it ought to be a fairly simple fix.

Perhaps we need some small contingency plans. Like, if we’re giving away too many penalties at the breakdown, spend ten minutes under the order “if your name’s not Curry or Rodd, don’t enter the ruck”. Back, off, let them have it if the jackler can’t get it and trust the defence. Let the ref see that the penalties have dried up, because I firmly believe that, once you’ve started giving penalties away like that, it only gets worse, and not because the ref has noticed you. No, it’s because that’s how the psychology of it works: the more you worry about giving penalties away, the more it affects your judgement and you give more away as a result. The only fix is to completely alter the suspect behaviour. Stop doing the same thing and expecting different results.

But enough. I’ve given it six hundred words because I simply can’t ignore the bloody great cliché in the room. I’ve got it off my chest for this week (check in next week, same bat time, same bat channel), so let’s do what I suggested above and talk about the first twenty-five minutes and skim over the rest.

I’ll admit (again) to not being too hopeful of getting much out of this game, but after the first five minutes, I was revising that opinion. Less than two minutes in and Sale pressure resulted in a line-out ten metres from the Ospreys’ goal line. The resulting maul quickly went down but the well-known scrum-half Bevan Rodd shipped the ball off neatly to Rob du Preez who gave it to Rohan who skipped between two defenders (where “skipped between” means “barged aside as if they were a pair of Twiglets”). Five minutes in, seven-nil up. Happy days.

An Ospreys penalty reduced the deficit but, on ten minutes, another five-metre lineout saw Ewan Ashman touch down for the second try. A cracking wide conversion from AJ gave Sale an eleven-point lead and by now we were all sat there thinking “this could be a very enjoyable afternoon”.

And then, after 25 minutes, it was 21–3 to Sale. Another lineout, another maul and a couple of bullocking runs from Ben Curry and Ewan Ashman ended with Jean-Luc du Preez grabbing the ball from the ruck and leaping over to plant it behind the try line. No idea where the Ospreys defenders were for that one, but I’m not complaining.

And then it all went to pot. Ospreys found their mojo, penalties started to rack up, Lood got binned and we fought a rear-guard action to get to half-time still 21–3 ahead.

The second half was all Ospreys as Sale struggled to regain the initiative, but seemed out of ideas. Protheroe started to show what you can with a full-back who can work up a bit of speed and some open field. Inevitably, their try came ten minutes into the second half and my old mate the little demon woke up from hibernation with a decidedly smug-looking grin on his face. Would we – could we – blow this one?

Spoiler: no.

Astonishingly, despite a penalty count going through the roof, despite the scrum getting mullered, despite losing Ben Curry for ten minutes, they held on, conceding only one more penalty goal and running out eventual winners 21–13.

I’m trying to not let those obvious problems detract from the importance of this win. Let’s leave them as a background concern and look to what those first twenty-five minutes bode for the future.

First off, Tom Curry was stellar. The best player on the pitch by a country mile. When someone like Sam Warburton is apologising for singing your praises so much, then you know you’re doing something right. Leaving the field injured after 57 minutes and still getting the player of the match award is some achievement. Ben wasn’t far behind (brain fart aside) but you can really see the difference the international experience makes.

Coming up the inside, Raffi and Ewan had excellent games and did their respective stock no harm. There is some real class in both of them, masked only by their relative inexperience. The (other) twins put in their customary solid, physical shift, whilst Rob did enough, I thought, at 13 to be risked there again. I noted that he occasionally popped up at 10 (and even 9 a couple of times): I quite like the idea of backs shifting roles during the game – it opens up options and keeps the opposition guessing.

Sale’s lineout is apparently one of the best in the Premiership if the commentary team are to be believed. It worked well this time but the scrum remains an area of concern, getting bullied for the bulk of the match. We also saw the consequence of a lack of real pace in the backs. In the first half, Ospreys were attacking, but a nifty turnover gave a counter-attack opportunity. If we had had a Radwan or a Rees-Zammit in the side, there was a good chance that would have seen the bonus point try, a probable regaining of the initiative and a possibly humungous score.

Or not; who knows? But the relative lack of pace meant that Marland was caught fairly easily and, although we made a lot of ground, it came to nothing, Ospreys picked themselves up and reapplied the pressure.

Please, Santa Simon and Santa Ged, can we have a back with six gears and a turbocharger for Christmas?

That said, we’re fourth in the table and, with eight going through, we stand a good chance of making the round of 16.

Clermont next. They lost at home to Ulster, so they’re definitely beatable but, by ’eck, they’ve got some big buggers in their pack, and that’s what concerns me, given the fragility of our scrum right now. Can’t call this one: it’ll either be lost in the scrum or won elsewhere. Should be a cracker.



Photographer and science geek. Rugby fan (Sale Sharks).